Most of the buzz in the Twins blogosphere lately has been about the Twins getting the giant Yankee-sized monkey off their back, and rightfully so. But on the list of the places in which the Twins have struggled to win in the last few years, the Rogers Center in Toronto is right up there. The Twins were swept in Toronto in both 2007 and 2008, and barely managed a split in 2009, so last night's win was a welcome follow-up to Sunday's dramatic victory. Kevin Slowey was effective enough, holding the Blue Jays lineup (who has been, dare I say, en fuego) to three runs in five innings of work, striking out two and walking none. He allowed a home run to the on-fire Jose Bautista, but otherwise limited the damage done by eight hits.
In 2009, before injuring his wrist, Slowey looked poised for a breakout campaign - he was striking out 7.44 batters per nine while walking only 1.49, good for a sparkling 5.00 K/BB ratio. That put him in elite company; with a minimum of 90 IP, only Halladay, Haren and Vasquez were better. In 2008, although he struck out fewer batters, his K/BB ratio was even better at 5.13 (again behind only Halladay and Haren) over 160 IP, and he posted an excellent 3.99 ERA that lined up nicely with his 3.91 FIP. However, this year, Slowey seems to be struggling with his usually-impeccable control, allowing an average of one full walk more per game (2.45) than his career average up to this point. His strikeout rate is also down from last year, from 7.44 to 6.75 per 9. The most encouraging part of last night's win was that even though he only struck out two, he walked no batters for only the second time this season.
Putting a finger on the reason for Slowey's command issues is tricky. It could certainly be some lingering effects from his wrist injury, but that's mitigated by the fact that his average velocity is up almost across the board from 2009. In addition, he's featuring his slider (and throwing it harder) much more often than he ever has, which would lead you to think that he's comfortable with the added torque on his arm. I'm not quite comfortable enough to do a thorough PitchFX analysis to look at whether or not it could be release point or other mechanical issues, but those could also be possibilities.
Aside from the control problems, the other most disconcerting thing is Slowey's steadily decreasing ground ball rate. He's always been a pretty extreme fly ball pitcher, but so far he's only getting 29.4% of his balls in play on the ground, down from 36.1% in 2008 and 32.0% in 2009. The bottom line is that although his K/BB rate could put him in elite company, his high FB rate means that he'll always be susceptible to the home run. Indeed, a look at the highest HR/9 rates in the league last year sees him much closer to the top of that list than the bottom, at 1.41, and although the rate at which fly balls left the yard was slightly unlucky (meaning his xFIP, which normalizes HR/FB rate to league average, of 4.23 was better than his ERA of 4.86), his increasing tendency to keep the ball in the air has significant downside. At this point, Slowey is obviously not going to turn into Joel Pineiro, but teammate Fransisco Liriano has shown so far this season that killing more worms has its benefits.
The bottom line is that whether Slowey's slow start is a lingering result of injury or something else, 2010 has been at least a small step back so far. He's certainly had some bad luck with a .353 BABIP, so his FIP is slightly better at 4.48 than his ERA, but he needs to get back to limiting his walks and doing what he can to get more outs via ground balls should he want to have more sustained success. Efficiency is also key - he's only pitched past the fifth inning once this season, and Phil Mackey has analyzed his struggles in the middle innings of his starts.
As I write this, the thus-far-solid Carl Pavano is getting shellacked by the Jays (although I don't think this is a case of iffy peripherals catching up with him as much as the sort of clunker that just happens from time to time), so the middle of the Twins' rotation could certainly use a Kevin Slowey that resembles his 2008-2009 version moreso than the way he's currently going. Let's hope last night was something to build on.